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One federal rule scallop fishermen don't mind at all

To find Charlie Sayles, you walk down a sandy road by the Nantucket Shipyard, cross a loading platform beside a refrigerator truck, pass the fish-cleaning table and the huge freezers, and end up in a cluttered storefront office.

From this independent empire, Mr. Sayles operates two commercial fishing boats that cruise Georges Bank and the Nantucket Shoals. His is a small firm: His boats, he says, are valued in ''the $150,000 range.'' As of May 15, however, he is subject to yet another regulation from the US Department of Commerce.

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His response? ''It should have been here five years ago.'' Contrary to the popular conception of fiercely independent, antigovernment fishermen, he is delighted.

''It'' is the government's new ''scallop plan.'' After three years of discussion with American fishermen, Canadian officials, and fishery management specialists, the United States has finally imposed size limits on the succulent, expensive meat of Placopecten magellanicus, the sea scallop.

For years, says the burly Sayles, the supply of these shellfish has been dwindling. ''Right now it's cleaned out,'' he says with understandable exaggeration, adding that ''it's going to take a while to come back.'' He blames the large ''million-dollar boats'' that come through the beds and sweep up even the smallest scallops.

The new plan was put forward by the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC). One of eight independent bodies established under federal legislation in 1976, it worked on the plan in consultation with its sister organizations from the mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic regions.

Rather than setting a quota (a common tool in fishery management), they settled on ''meat count.'' The regulation says that there can be no more than 40 of the small white meats per pound - a size that comes from scallops with at least a 3 1/4-inch shell. Next year the size will increase, as the count drops to 30 meats to the pound.

Over on the Massachusetts mainland, Steve Pallatroni of the New Bedford Seafood Cooperative Association agrees with Sayles. New Bedford fishermen, whose fleet of 50 to 60 scallopers is the nation's largest, are generally pleased with the plan, he says. ''People coming in with small scallops will deplete the product at sea,'' Mr. Pallatroni says, adding that now ''all those small 70 -count scallops will have a chance to grow out there.'' Joe Daniels of the Wanchese Fish Company in Wanchese, N.C., agrees that the size limit may be a help. ''The fishermen are the biggest enemies'' of the shellfish, he says. He has watched the scallop fishery off North Carolina disappear in recent years, and now sends his scallop boats up toward New England waters.

Scallops, which are primarily a North Atlantic delicacy, come in several varieties. The small bay scallop is the most common in fresh fish markets. The increasingly popular calico scallop is found south of Virginia. But the major market is for sea scallops, says Guy Marchesseault, a biologist and chief of the technical staff for the NEFMC. These are the ones that show up as a breaded, frozen product in Midwestern supermarkets. And they are the ones most in need of protection.

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''The exploitation rate has been two to three times as high as we think would be acceptable from a biological point of view,'' says Dr. Marchesseault. Figures from Georges Bank, the largest sea scallop fishery, back him up. In 1978, US and Canadian fishermen landed a record 18,000 tons. That number slipped to 11,000 tons in 1980.

But it is still a valuable product: With market prices hovering around $3.50 per pound, the NEFMC staff estimates the gross value of sea scallops to US fishermen at about $115 million a year.

Economics, in fact, is one reason the fishermen are behind the new plan. Some are concerned, however, that a tough limit in the 25-count range--which under the plan could be imposed in future years if needed--could put some boats out of business.

But all agree on one thing: as supplies are limited, prices will stay up.

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